A park becomes a smoking section as competitive barbecuers pit their pit skills against the best at Smoke in the Valley.
By Elisa Ludwig
For The Inquirer
At 8 a.m. Saturday, Mark Zonfrillo, an ER pediatrician from Mount Airy, watched closely as his brother Paul slid a thermometer into the beef brisket. “Looks good,” Paul announced, nodding.
Sleep-deprived but determined, the brothers and their families – also known as team ZBQ – had worked through the rain and tornado warnings the night before, smoking, basting, and pampering their barbecue entries.
By morning, the sky was clear and two 8-pound pork butts were already wrapped and resting in the cooler. The chicken was marinating on ice. Six racks of ribs were still smoking.
Plumes of barbecue smoke and equally tenuous hopes for a pig-topped trophy hovered above the patchwork of tents and smokers at the second annual Smoke in the Valley BBQ Cook-Off Competition in Green Lane, near Lansdale, on May 15, as 49 teams from across the country readied their barbecue contenders.
This competition, a fundraiser for the Green Lane volunteer fire company, is one of 300 across the country, an increase from fewer than 60 ten years ago sanctioned by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, the most influential governing body of competitive barbecue, which provides trained judges and criteria.
The Zonfrillo team, among the ever-growing number of amateurs bitten by the competitive barbecue bug, arrived at Isaac Smith Park at noon on Friday – Paul Zonfrillo, his wife, Ann, and daughter Maria, 13, drove down from their home in Narragansett, R.I., smoker and tents in a U-Haul. Mark and Nancy Zonfrillo and infant daughter Ella traveled from Mount Airy. The team spent Friday setting up the tents, prepping the food, and starting the meats in the smoker – then sleeping in three-hour shifts so someone could watch the smoker all night.
A look beyond ZBQ’s relatively humble setup revealed RVs airbrushed with dancing pigs, inflatable gnomes, high-end custom smoking rigs, stereo systems blaring country music, sponsorships from charcoal companies.
The scrappiest award would have to go to the hometown team Flavor File, whose members constructed their own smokers out of office filing cabinets. “We saw something on YouTube that gave us the idea,” said Rob Carpenter, who salvaged the cabinets from an office fire. “It probably took us about six months to come up with a prototype.” This was their first competition.
ZBQ, on the other hand, has been on the BBQ contest circuit for four years, and taken home a few awards, which they proudly display. But mostly they consider their entry in 10 or so competitions each season a hobby.
“We’re really an ‘Any Given Sunday’ kind of team,” said Mark, whose brother Paul bought him a smoker as a wedding gift. It all began with beer-can chicken in the backyard and grew from there, he explained. “A lot of these people go to every competition and win every time. We just do this to spend time together.”
His daughter Maria thinks reality TV has inspired more competitors: “I think these events are becoming more competitive because more people are watching TLC’s Pitmasters.” She and her brother Nick, 18, placed third in a Junior World Barbecue Championship last year in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Around 9:30 a.m., the park hit a lull, as teams settled into lounge chairs, toasting with beers and Bloody Marys. Turn-in wasn’t for another couple of hours; it was a matter of waiting for the meat to finish cooking.
Turn-in times, as dictated by the Kansas City Barbecue Society, are strict: noon for chicken; 12:30 p.m for ribs; 1 p.m. for pulled pork, 1:30 p.m. for brisket. Fall beyond a few minutes and a team will be disqualified. Presentation is just as seriously prescribed: Garnishes are limited to parsley, cilantro, and certain types of lettuce (red-leaf is verboten); “sculpturing” meat is a no-no.
Asked whether the judging is subjective, judge Jim Ruben, a barbecue pitmaster himself, said, “It is and it isn’t. Every human being has their likes and dislikes. But what’s neat about the Kansas City Barbecue Society is that the judging is always blind. … These folks are just good down-to-earth people.”
“The stuff you see on TV is usually scripted.”
By 11 a.m., people with T-shirt slogans like “You Don’t Need Teef to Eat Our Beef” were back on their feet, spritzing meat with apple juice, taking temperatures, crimping foil.
Activity in the ZBQ tent began to heat up. The ribs went in for a second glazing. The chicken thighs came out of the smoker and were dredged in sauce. The smell of vinegar wafted through the tent. The wind picked up, blowing plates and bottles off the table.
“This can be more stressful than my job at times,” said Mark. “In the emergency room, I know what I’m doing. I don’t always know what I’m doing here,” he admitted.
This next hour, Paul said, is make-or-break time. All of the team’s work can be endangered by a few extra minutes in the smoker, or poor foil wrapping, or – “We forgot the brown sugar on the ribs,” Paul announced gravely.
“It’ll be OK,” Ann said. “We’ll add a little extra at the end.”
At 11:50 a.m., competitors began the mad dash across the park’s green, across the street, and up the stairs to the second floor of the firehouse to deliver their first foam presentation boxes to the judges. Mark timed the trip earlier (31/2 minutes).
In the firehouse bingo hall, shielded from contestants, eight tables of judges awaited their portions. They inspected and ate in silence, occasionally licking a finger. They recorded scores (from 2 to 9 for appearance, taste, and tenderness).
Back at the tent, ribs were lined up for inspection. Pink smoke ring: check. Retraction from the bone: check. No surface irregularities: check. The team debated the best-looking rack, with Mark making the final call. The ribs were sliced evenly and set on the bias in their box for delivery.
At 12:39 p.m., Paul sat, announcing he had a headache. Ann handed him a coffee and he downed it. There was no time: The pork was calling. Pulling the shoulder meat is a laborious, two-person job, but it looked moist and, after an additional sprinkling of salt and spice, Paul was satisfied with the flavor overall. At 12:55 p.m., it was sent off.
Just when the team should have been feeling relief hitting the home stretch, ZBQ hit a snag with their final round. Mark sliced the flat cut brisket and clinically observed that it was looking dry. The team strategized and decided to turn in the point cut instead, in a combination of burnt-end chunks and chopped meat, moistened with au jus.
“A few years ago, we wouldn’t have thought to do this,” Paul said. “But it’s completely fine to just turn in the point if that’s the better cut.”
The final box was delivered with an exhausted cheer. Mark doled out plates of barbecue and his wife Nancy’s mayo-less slaw to friends and guests; some team members retired for showers and naps.
At 5 p.m., the team reconvened at a pavilion to hear the results. They were late and stood at the back, so it was almost impossible to hear.
The announcer started calling out winners, starting with 10th place, for chicken. Cheers and polite clapping followed each. With no recognition for chicken, brisket, or pork, it started to look pretty hopeless for ZBQ, as the ribs category approached.
“49 teams,” Mark said. “It’s the biggest competition we’ve ever faced.”
His wife, holding baby Ella, smiled sympathetically.
Cruzen-2-Q was called up for a prize. Then Lo’-N-Slo’. Fire & Spice. The announcer continued.
“First place: Ribs. ZBQ.”
Paul, Maria, and Ann looked at one another in disbelief, then screamed. Mark joined them as they sprinted to the front for handshakes and photos.
They returned with a trophy and a check for $300. Their rib score was 177.714; 180 is considered perfect.
“I can’t believe it,” Maria said.
“I’m shocked!” said Mark.
Paul just smiled and raised the trophy so the golden pig glinted in the sun.
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